On the battlefield, Jim Mattis’ military call sign was “Chaos.” But even that moniker couldn’t have prepared him for the Trump administration. Mattis, the former defense secretary, has penned an essay warning of the dire consequences of an America that is sharply divided at home and no longer viewed as a stable global leader by our allies — a situation, he says, that “jeopardizes our future.”
He doesn’t specify that President Donald Trump is to blame for these ills. He doesn’t have to.
Mattis was confirmed as Trump’s first defense secretary in January 2017. In contrast to so many of this administration’s top officials, he came in not as a campaign sycophant or industry lobbyist, but as a respected retired general with no previous ties to Trump. It’s little wonder Mattis felt compelled to resign less than two years later, after Trump impetuously announced he was pulling American troops out of Syria (a decision he just as impetuously reversed afterward).
In an essay in The Wall Street Journal Wednesday, adapted from an upcoming book, Mattis makes indirect but unmistakable reference to the dangers of that kind of presidential decision-making. Mattis doesn’t frame it as a tell-all trashing of his former boss but rather lays out principles and concerns regarding America’s challenges both at home and abroad. He lets the reader draw the conclusions. They aren’t hard to draw.
“Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither,” Mattis writes. “Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy. At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering.”
Even as those words were being published, Trump was once again frustrating U.S. allies while making the baffling case at the G-7 conference in France that Russia should be allowed back into the organization after being expelled for invading Ukraine. His trade wars cause U.S. alliances to deteriorate further.
Domestically, Mattis writes, “What concerns me most as a military man is not our external adversaries; it is our internal divisiveness. We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions.”
Consider those words in the context of Trump’s vicious, divisive attacks on Democratic members of Congress, ethnic minorities, entire cities and states, and the majority of Americans who aren’t part of his base. Has America been more divided at any recent time than it is under Trump?
The upcoming book from which Mattis’ essay is drawn, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” is sure to be an interesting view from inside the Trump White House, though it’s unlikely to yield any surprises. The fact is, almost three years in, we’ve all been watching the chaos unfold in real time.